When the sinner’s prayer doesn’t work.

Imagine you share Jesus with someone. (Hope you do share Jesus with people. But anyway.)

Imagine they respond well: They express an interest in this Jesus whom you speak of. They believe you when you tell ’em Jesus saved them. They wanna become a Christian right here and now. So you say the sinner’s prayer with them. They recite all the words right after you. They feel happy about it. You feel happy about it. And there was much rejoicing. Yea!

Okay, now imagine it’s a year later and you meet up with that person again… and you find their life hasn’t changed. At all.

They don’t go to church; they don’t see the point. They don’t read the bible; they don’t see the point. They don’t pray; no more than usual, which is the occasional “God, get me out of this and I promise I’ll…” and nothing more. Not even religious feelings, which I admit are usually self-manufactured, but they don’t even have that.

No fruit of the Spirit. They’re not any happier, any more joyful. They’re as impatient as ever, as unkind as ever, and don’t know the difference between love and romance or passion or covetousness. Nothing.

Sinner’s prayer didn’t take.

It actually happens a lot. I used to work at a summer camp program for inner city youth. Those kids would come one summer, hear the gospel, say the sinner’s prayer, go home… and not be Christian. Then they’d come back next summer. Hear the gospel again, say the sinnner’s prayer again, go home, and still not be Christian. And repeat till they were too old for summer camp.

Evangelists know from experience: We’ll hold an evangelism event; some important guy from an evangelism ministry will come to town, and we’ll get a really big church to host it, or have it at the community center or ballpark. The important guy will ask everyone to come forward if they want Jesus, and counselors will be there at the foot of the stage to talk with those who come forward, and lead ’em in the sinner’s prayer. And next year, or two years later, we’ll hold another evangelism event, and again invite people to come forward, and many who come forward will turn out to be the same people who came forward last time. Who will pray the sinner’s prayer again. Who knows?—maybe this time they’ll repent.

I’ve done street evangelism. And sometimes ran into the same people. And they wanted to say the sinner’s prayer again, ’cause this time they meant it. And later, they’ll mean it again.

Like I said, it actually happens a lot.

But if Christians are new to evangelism, or if they’ve never really paid attention before, this is news to them. Some of ’em are kinda horrified: “It didn’t work? What d’you mean it didn’t work? The word of God doesn’t return void!”

Well yeah, if it were the word of God. It’s not; it’s just the sinner’s prayer.

“Yeah, but ‘he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it…’ ” Pp 1.6

Yeah yeah, I know the Steve Green song. You’re assuming God actually made ’em Christian and put the Holy Spirit in them, so they’re going to heaven no matter what. But he didn’t do that yet. Because they weren’t ready yet.

But some folks don’t believe that’s how God works: They insist grace is irresistible. If anybody says the sinner’s prayer, it’s because God led this person to pray that prayer, because God determined this person’d become Christian, and they will become Christian. Because determinism. It’s not actually up to them. Sure, their lifestyle makes it look like the sinner’s prayer didn’t take, but these determinists believe in their heart of hearts God will make it take, whether they want it to or not.

…’Cause that’s what they do. And I get that. If I were the Holy Spirit, and somebody said the sinner’s prayer, I’d’ve stepped right in and unilaterally changed a whole lot of stuff about ’em. Reprogrammed their brain so they’d be happier and more obedient. Knocked all the temptations out of their paths. Shouted at ’em nice and loud whenever they were about to sin, “DONT.” I’d go mad with benevolent power. I’d want ’em saved!

It’s mighty Calvinist of me, but I admit it’s not all that loving. Love is patient, 1Co 13.4 love doesn’t seek its own way, 1Co 13.5 and God is love. 1Jn 4.16 God might transform a person who has no interest in transformation, but usually he prefers to reward those who earnestly seek him. He 11.6 Not those who only turn to Jesus just to escape hell, and have no interest in becoming any different than before.

On people who have no real interest in following Jesus, the sinner’s prayer doesn’t work. It’s a prayer of surrender, and they didn’t surrender.

It’s not a magic spell!

I know you know the sinner’s prayer isn’t a magic spell. But sometimes Christians forget this.

Too many Christians treat it as one: Say the sinner’s prayer and presto-chango you’re saved, and it always works! Some of ’em, I kid you not, claim it works even if you never really meant it! Because God means it. He heard you say the words, he heard you swear to follow him, he holds us to our oaths, and therefore he follows through and saves us. These folks even have amusing anecdotes: They heard a story of someone who said the sinner’s prayer and didn’t mean it, yet because God meant it, these unrepentant converts found themselves no longer enjoying any of their favorite old sins, and growing the Spirit’s fruit in spite of themselves. How ’bout that testimony, eh?

Meh. Here’s the problem with this interpretation: It presumes God is obligated to do something when a hypocrite says the sinner’s prayer. Is he? Nope.

“But if you confess Jesus, you’ll be saved.” Ro 10.9 Okay, let’s stop half-quoting that passage and read it in its entirety:

Romans 10.5-13 NRSV
5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” Lv 18.5 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” Dt 30.12 (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” Dt 30.13 (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say?
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart” Dt 30.14
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” Is 28.16 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Jl 2.32

Notice there’s a trust component to this calling-upon-God thingy. If we don’t trust him, if we say the sinner’s prayer without any faith behind it, God doesn’t consider us right with him, i.e. justify us. Faith justifies us. Ro 5.1 Faithless sinner’s prayers justify nothing. Is God gonna do anything with such a prayer? Well, he’ll hold people to the oaths they made… but without any faith, our oaths are meaningless. They only contribute to our destruction.

Yikes. So much for the magic.

It’s not proof of salvation.

When I was a kid, I and my fellow Sunday school chums sometimes wondered whether we were really saved. I was mostly sure I was. Jesus was definitely in my heart somewhere. I could feel him knocking around quite vigorously after that third Sunday morning jelly doughnut.

Even so, kids doubt, ’cause Sunday school teachers like to sow doubt. “Are you sure you’re saved? Really sure? If you’re not sure you’re saved, come forward and we’ll get you saved.” Thus they could report 30 salvations every week, even though we were all the very same 40 kids.

How could we be sure we were saved? Simple, they claimed: When’d you say the sinner’s prayer? ’Cause the day you said the sinner’s prayer, Jesus climbed into your heart, and that’s your “spiritual birthday.” That’s the day you were born again. Jn 3.3 Do you know your spiritual birthdate? You really oughta have it written down somewhere, like in your bible. (I actually don’t know my own spiritual birthdate. It’s somewhere in June 1976.)

So whenever we kids doubted our salvation, we were meant to get out our bibles, flip to the page where we wrote down we made a formal profession of Christ, check out the date, and know in our “knower” that we’d been saved. We had a spiritual birthday. Devil, don’t you tempt me with not knowing I’ve been saved. I have a spiritual birthday!

I kid you not; I remember one youth pastor encouraging us kids that if we didn’t know our spiritual birthday, you gotta say the sinner’s prayer right this minute, and make today your spiritual birthday. Then write it everywhere. He told the story of some guy who didn’t know his spiritual birthday, so he said the sinner’s prayer, wrote that day’s date on a post, hammered the post somewhere in his backyard, and every time he had doubts—’cause it sounds like he had some serious long-term memory problems—he just looked out the back window at his post. God forbid anything happen to his post; he’ll have to say the sinner’s prayer all over again.

See, this is why we have all these fruitless people running amok in our churches. Because the real proof of salvation isn’t a prayer. It’s fruit. Mt 7.15-20 Call Jesus “Lord” all you want; if you don’t do a single thing he teaches, he ain’t your Lord. Mt 7.21-23 But our Sunday school teachers didn’t teach us any such thing. You could live like an utter pagan, with zero interest in Jesus ever since you first said the sinner’s prayer some 60-some years ago, and they’ll still say, “Yep, it counts.” No it doesn’t.

The sinner’s prayer is like every rote prayer: It’s only a valid prayer when we mean it. It’s useless hypocrisy when we don’t. If I ask God to take command of my life but never honestly meant it, God needn’t bother, and probably didn’t. If I swore I’d follow him forever but haven’t, I’m gonna suffer the consequences—the eternal consequences—of ignoring my vow.

All these Christians who claim, “When’d you say the sinner’s prayer? That’s when you got saved”: They don’t know what they’re talking about. The sinner’s prayer is a good deed, and nobody is saved by doing good deeds. Ep 2.9 We’re saved by God’s grace; nothing else. Ep 2.8 And if God graciously hasn’t deposited the Holy Spirit in you, and the Spirit graciously isn’t producing fruit in you, it’s a good bet you’re not saved.

Easily rectified: Say the sinner’s prayer and mean it! But if you don’t mean it, you’re only praying more condemnation upon yourself.

The repentant have to want Jesus.

As I said earlier, a lot of people have become Christians because they’re hoping to avoid hell. Not because they legitimately want a relationship with Jesus. They really don’t want Jesus. They’re not planning to make any effort to follow him. They just want the no-strings-attached gospel: Say the magic words, get into heaven, and receive enough cheap grace to cover all the sins they’re still planning to commit.

So when we share Jesus with people, make sure they’re not one of those. I’m not saying we shouldn’t share Jesus with such people; share him with everyone! But don’t be surprised when such people say the sinner’s prayer… then a year later, they’re still as pagan as ever. They didn’t really want Jesus, so they still don’t have him. Kinda predictable.

But again: Share Jesus with everyone. ’Cause sometimes they half-heartedly say the sinner’s prayer, and God decides, “Oh, I’m not letting you goldbrick your way through my kingdom,” and gets to work on ’em, and after a bit of struggle (or after a really long, hard struggle) they turn into strong, devout Christians. Happens to a lot of ’em. Happened to me.

Either way, the sinner’s prayer is no guarantee you’re gonna wind up with a Christian success story. Don’t attribute special magical powers to it. It has none. Prayer works when we mean it, doesn’t when we don’t; the same is true of the sinner’s prayer. And that is all.